You know you're getting old when bowling becomes vigorous exercise. And you know you're getting desperate when you crave a dish that's made in the restaurant of a bowling alley.
Actually, I'm not a stranger to either sensation. I generally thought of bowling alleys as places to score cheap booze; those times I did bowl, the unfamiliar motion always resulted in a strained something-or-other the next day. But I had a particular fondness for one establishment located on the outskirts of my hometown. No doubt it was the cheap(er) rent that attracted them, but the restaurants that always leased here were ethnic, authentic, and downright good. None of them stayed very long, simply because the venue wasn't always attractive to serious diners -- OK, it was hardly ever a draw to any except the craziest of us -- but throughout the years, I scored strikes there of the Hunan Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Indonesian kind.
Thus, Restaurant La Gaspésienne didn't really come as too much of a surprise to me, though I saw the doubt on my companions' faces beaming in at me from the rather decrepit parking lot. This French-Canadian eatery, alternatively known as La Gaspésiénne, Chez Diane, and La Belle Gaspésienne, depending upon whose business card you read or which French-Canadian website you discover the place on, is at the west end of the Holiday Lanes bowling center, situated on East Pembroke Road in Hallandale Beach. As such, it sure isn't the toniest joint in town. In fact, this is the kind of place that should be worried about the recent passing of the no-smoking proposition, because the clientele here are quite obviously good friends of Big Tobacco. Until next summer, unless you want to take your clothes to the dry cleaners, do as new mothers do -- wear machine washables.
Nor is the décor any more enticing. The square box of a room, which opens into the bowling alley, boasts -- and I use the word loosely -- paper placemats featuring flags of the world (who knew the emblems of Puerto Rico and Cuba were so darn similar?), plastic tablecloths covering the linens, and vases of flowers that are so faux they even have wax "dewdrops" on the polyester petals and leaves.
What could possibly be La Gaspésienne's attraction? Simply put, poutine.
To South Florida's native Spanish speakers, the name of this dish sounds vaguely dirty, stemming perhaps from the ever-popular puta. But to French-Canadians, poutine is both homey and heavenly. Its origin is murky. Some say it comes from the Gaspésie region of Québec (hence the eatery's name); others credit the village of Warwick in the Bois-Francs area. Regardless, the North American equivalent of Philly-style cheese fries or diner-like fries with gravy, poutine is so popular that certain fast-food chains serve them along with Le Big Macs. It's easy to see why: The French fries and cheddar cheese curds, which melt a little on contact but retain their integrity in general, are covered with a thick, starchy gravy that clings to the deep-fried potatoes. The result is a slightly gloppy but highly addictive treat that obsesses people to the point that there are websites, such as "Poutine Talk," dedicated to it, and the home pages of folks like Elizabeth Mitchell note that the Québecois invented poutine, " because everyone deserves to die of a heart attack before they hit forty. Poutine is the best thing to happen to the potato since just about... ever."
I don't know about the potato, but poutine is certainly the best thing to happen to bowling alleys since spring rolls and naan. You can even get it sauced with Italian-style meat gravy, which lends a heartier, chili-like aspect to the dish. And although you may indeed feel that the latter version is almost certainly heart- attack-on-a-plate material, chances are that if you don't decide to fling a few bowling balls down lanes immediately after eating, you'll be just fine.
Don't expect to get off lightly at La Gaspésienne by ignoring the poutine, however. Nearly every other item is fried, blanketed with melted cheese, or smothered in some kind of rich gravy. Even the filet of sole, which is clean-tasting and lemony under its breaded coating, is fried a brown as golden as autumn leaves and accompanied by artery-cloggers like coleslaw and tartar sauce. Add in that homemade soup or salad and desserts like sugar pie and rice pudding are included with main courses and that weekend evenings feature a buffet equivalent to a quadruple bypass and you'll be well aware that La Gaspésienne is not for the faint of heart or appetite.
Aside from leaving your diet at the door, customers should go armed with additional guidelines. Most important, stick to what's real. Tender escargots, slathered in a garlic-heavy butter sauce, are real. Flavorless crabmeat, which stuffs the mushrooms that are also, of course, topped with melted cheese, is not. Baked potatoes are, but the mashed spuds look more like Cream of Wheat and have that reconstituted mealiness. Homemade pea soup tastes like it's been simmered from scratch rather than a mix, with plump legumes afloat in a rich, ham-salty broth. But the coquille St. Jacques appetizer not only lacks scallops and high-quality Gruyere but it's made with the seemingly ubiquitous fake crab and, I suspect, some of the leftover mashed potatoes, as it had an unusual, fluffy crust. Still, the garlicky flavor of the dish was good enough for me to wish that genuine seafood had been used.
Other items are clearly authentic. Baby-back ribs were surprisingly meaty, falling off the bones cleanly enough that a dog would be disappointed gnawing on the leftovers. Chicken Parmesan featured a juicy breast of chicken topped with hearty sauce and gooey mozzarella, and the spaghetti that partnered it had also been layered with sauce and cheese and then baked. In fact, the Italian dishes took the top ratings, especially the freshly baked pizza, an extra-tasty version with crusty edges and thick, just-sweet marinara. Indeed, I'd return for pizza and poutine alone. As for the bowling, though, you know it's time to take a pass when your cholesterol count is higher (much higher) than your score.
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